SEATTLE (Reuters) - The U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians was upset at having to do a fourth tour of duty in a war zone and was likely suffering from stress after seeing colleagues wounded, his defense lawyer said on Thursday.
Seattle defense attorney John Henry Browne said the 38-year-old staff sergeant accused of gunning down children and families on Sunday had already been wounded twice in three tours in Iraq and had been told he would not be sent back to a war zone.
“He and his family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over. His family was counting on him not being redeployed,” said Browne at a news conference in Seattle. “Literally overnight that changed. So I think it would be fair to say that he and the family were not happy that he was going back.”
An unnamed U.S. official told The New York Times the killings were a result of “a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues - he just snapped.”
Asked about the Times report, Browne said he did not know about alcohol and acknowledged that stress was a factor, but he dismissed the domestic issue as “nonsense.”
Browne said he had not discussed details of the incident with his client but added that the man’s unit had sustained casualties about the time of the civilian killings.
“I don’t know if I’d call them friends, but other people deployed in that base were seriously injured and/or killed shortly before these allegations,” he said.
Browne would not go into specifics about the identity or well-being of his client. He said only that he was originally from the U.S. Midwest and was at the moment “more shocked than anything.”
The death penalty had been discussed with Army lawyers, said Browne, and was still on the table as a possible sentence.
Lieutenant Colonel Gary Dangerfield, a spokesman at the Lewis-McChord base, declined to comment on the case.
Details have dribbled out about the sergeant in the 2-3 Infantry, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which is housed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Seattle.
The soldier served three tours in Iraq, where he received a head wound and lost part of one foot. He was not sure if he was ready for Afghanistan, the lawyer said. “He wasn’t certain he was healthy enough. Physically, mostly,” Browne said.
Browne, who represented U.S. serial killer Ted Bundy, described his client as an “exemplary” soldier and said the charges against him - and the man’s name - may not be known for weeks.
He had joined the Army after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
“He enlisted within a week of 9/11. He felt it was his duty to stand up for the United States,” Browne said. The soldier met his wife online and they have a “very healthy marriage” and two children. The wife and the children, ages 3 and 4, have been moved to the Seattle-area military base for protection.
The unnamed U.S. staff sergeant is accused of killing the civilians in what witnesses described as a nighttime massacre near a U.S. base in Afghanistan’s violent Kandahar province.
He arrived in Afghanistan in December and had been at the Belambai base since February 1.
Browne said that charges against his client would be filed “probably not sooner than a few weeks” and that his name would not be released before the charges.
The soldier is being held at a U.S. base in Kuwait, and it is not clear where or when a trial would be held, Browne said, but it would be under military rules.
The Times reported the military was preparing to move the soldier to a prison in the United States as early as Friday, most likely to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
There has been broad speculation that the sergeant could have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Browne did not rule that out.
Browne, known for a flamboyant courtroom manner and inventive legal mind, attempted to defend a local thief known as the “Barefoot Bandit” on the grounds that he was suffering from PTSD from an unsettled childhood.
“Barefoot Bandit” Colton Harris-Moore, 20, was sentenced to 6-1/2 years in prison in January for a two-year crime spree.
Additional reporting by Bill Rigby. Editing by Christopher Wilson and Eric Beech